Loretta Chase writes about difficult men. Her next book, A Duke in Shining Armor (Avon, Dec.), launches the Difficult Dukes series, which she says portrays the heroes as serious alphas: “They’re big, they’re intimidating, and they don’t play by the rules.”
But they aren’t the kind of men who will be what flap copy used to call “driven mad by passion” or “overcome by the need to make her his.” Bluntly, there’s a taboo that governs even the rule-breaking alphas of modern romance: one against rape.
While now known for big, stormy relationships, when Chase began writing in 1987, her books were traditional, closed-door Regencies. “I wasn’t comfortable writing the kinds of sex scenes I had read,” she says, in which consent was, at best, ambiguous.
Writers have been grappling with whether a rapist can be a hero since bodice-rippers—so called because the heroes tended to force themselves on virginal heroines—like The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss and Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers (both Avon) stormed bookshelves in the 1970s.
Cathy Maxwell, a longtime romance author whose next novel is If Ever I Should Love You (Avon, Dec.), was in college in the 1970s. She says that romance novels were part of the evolution of gender relations at the time: “In those books in the ’80s, we didn’t see [the male lead] as a rapist. We saw him as a virile man who was so taken with this woman that he would do anything to have her. I think it’s important to go back to those books and realize that, even though there was a traumatic event, at the same time, in the course of that story, we find people who begin a dialogue and begin to gentle themselves into a meaningful relationship, and that the hero is not demeaned by that gentleness.”
But many writers and editors believe the genre has evolved, and they are blunt. “One of the things I teach in my books is how men should treat women, because most people don’t have a fucking clue,” says veteran novelist Lindsay McKenna, who has written for Kensington, Silhouette, and others. “Back in the 1980s it was about a man being dominant and a woman was second best, and calling it love. That’s not love, I’m sorry. That sucks.”
The Weinstein Factor
Discussions about consent are not new to romance, but they may become newly prominent at this moment in the American conversation, when women are making public their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, hashtagged #MeToo.
Citing Harvey Weinstein, Maxwell notes, “It’s very common for women to find themselves sometimes trusting someone who’s untrustworthy.”
Nearly every author and editor interviewed for this piece made reference to Weinstein’s alleged transgressions and other related news items. A few argued for industrywide standards.
“I know there are still books that blur that line, but I think we need, as an industry, to be our own police force on this,” says Sarah Hegger, whose most recent romance is Becoming Bella (Zebra). “There are no ifs, buts, or maybes—no is no. We need to send that message loud and clear and empower women to use those voices. We can see from this #MeToo campaign that it’s all too prevalent.”
LGBTQ publisher Riptide, for example, once was known for boundary-pushing sex scenes. “We don’t publish them anymore,” says editorial director Sarah Lyons. “We didn’t want a reputation as the publishing house that would publish the weird, dark, scary, problematic stories.” The company has tackled the issue head-on, she says, by overhauling its editorial parameters. “Our guidelines for editors are very, very specific about consent.”
One section reads: “At the beginning of BDSM relationships and when characters attempt new practices, make sure consent is given, whether verbally or non-verbally, unless lack of consent is integral to the storyline and ultimately condemned by the text.”
Others make the case against a universal standard, noting that the conversation about how to handle rape and sexual abuse belongs between authors and editors.
“I can’t put a heroine with somebody who would abuse her,” Chase says, but she’s wary of blanket prohibitions. “Human relationships are not black-and-white. We watch people change all the time.”
Reality vs. Fantasy
It’s challenging to simultaneously respect the taboo against positively portraying rape and the place that rape occupies in some readers’ imaginations. In an essay in the 1992 anthology Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (Univ. of Pennsylvania), Daphne Clair, a second-wave feminist and the author of more than 70 romance novels, argued that the genre shouldn’t ban the subject altogether but instead let readers’ responses and the market inform editorial decisions.
“These bodice rippers enable women whose greatest terror is rape to face it safely between the pages of a book, which they know quite clearly has no resemblance to real life but where they can contain and control the experience,” Clair wrote. “This may well be a perfectly valid way of dealing with fear—within the context of a genre which men proudly declare they never read.”
Some modern critics think that argument still holds weight. “This is an extremely complex issue, and romance is trying to come to terms with it and is trying to convert it, make it something controllable, and trying to find a distinction between the rape fantasy and rape as a crime,” says Robin L., an essayist and reviewer at Dear Author. “I know people are going to argue that this is why we have to model positive relationships in romance, because we help women understand these clarities in real life. I don’t think it works this way. I just don’t.”
Robin L. categorizes what happens on the page, including rape, as a fantasy that readers choose to entertain, even when it is not the heroine’s fantasy. Striking a similar note to Clair’s, she says that many women grapple with the real-world threat of rape by containing and contextualizing it on the pages of a romance novel.“I think sexual force is always going to be part of the romance genre,” she adds. “That feeling of vulnerability is something women have to deal with culturally.”
Chase acknowledges that some readers look to romance as a space to explore a fantasy of nonconsensual sex. “I think it’s still possible to write those books, mainly because one of the wonderful things about romance is that it’s so broad and leaves room for every kind of book,” she says. “I don’t want to make judgments about women who like those types of stories. It’s a personal thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean a woman is backward or maladjusted.”
Some mainstream publishers are navigating this territory with story lines that explore the fantasy of rape cautiously, through role play.
In an early scene in Lilah Pace’s Asking for It (Berkley, 2015), the heroine, who is fixated on rape fantasies, is wary of a strange man who stops to help her with a flat tire. The point is clear: even a heroine who is turned on by the fantasy of force can tell the difference between that and a real threat. The stranger eventually becomes the romantic hero and, before a very different replay of the night they met, Pace writes a conversation about boundaries.
“It’s okay. This is difficult.” He pauses a moment before adding, “Are you scared?”
Deep breath. Honest answer. “Yes and no. I believe you aren’t going to do anything without my permission. But what we’re doing feels a little like jumping off a cliff. I’ve had this fantasy since—since always, but I never thought I’d act it out with a stranger—”...
As soon as the waiter hurries off, Jonah turns to me. “What would it take to make you feel safe?”
—from Asking for It by Lilah Pace
Cindy Hwang acquired Asking for It, she says, because the book acknowledges the fantasy behind the rapist-heroes written in the 1970s and ’80s, but also addresses what is, for today’s, readers, the central problem with those plots—the heroine’s lack of agency.
“It’s something the protagonist wishes to live out, and she is looking for a man who could fulfill that fantasy,” Hwang says of Asking for It’s role-playing story line. “But the entire point of the book is consent.”
Once undiscussed or nonexistent, consent is now explicitly present and character-driven in many books. Authors stitch consent into the breathless discovery of a new lover, or new horizons. Down by Contact (Berkley, Jan. 2018), the second in Santino Hassell’s M/M sports romance series, follows the growing attraction between two pro football players, only one of whom has experience with other men.
“They play this really, really immature kid game called ‘Nervous,’ ” Hassell says, “where I touch you, you touch me, we keep going until one of us says ‘nervous.’ ”
I sat up on the couch but kept my hands braced against the cushion and my face angled up to him. “Do you still wanna show me up?”
“I’ll always want to show you up, Boudreaux.”
“All right then, let’s see what makes you jumpy.”...
Adrián’s fingers pressed harder against my chest before falling away. There was a hint of apprehension in his pursed lips and loosely balled hands, but then he plastered on that rakish Bravo grin and lifted his chin.
“Do your worst,” he said, threading his fingers behind his head.
—from Down by Contact by Santino Hassell
(For further discussion of how communication is addressed in LGBTQ romance, see “Consenting and Queer.”)
Positive consent—the opposite of the forced contact that characterizes bodice-rippers—is becoming mainstream. “One of the sexiest consent scenes I’ve ever worked with is all about positive consent,” Lyons says, citing Tamsen Parker’s short story “Needs,” which was published in the Winter Rain anthology (Pink Kayak, 2014). In it, she says, the hero “makes the positive consent, the enthusiastic consent, kind of the requirement for them having sex together.” She adds, “It was a revelation—it wasn’t just lack of a no, it was an enthusiastic yes.”
Authors are even introducing contemporary norms of consent into historical romances. Courtney Milan struggled with a way to transform sex from terrifying to satisfying for Serena Barton, the heroine of her self-published historical novella The Governess Affair (2011). Serena, a servant who was raped and impregnated by a duke, later meets and marries Hugo Marshall in order to protect herself and her child.
“She’s mistrustful and wants to consummate the marriage on an intellectual level, but there’s a certain amount of resistance to it,” Milan says. On the fifth or sixth draft, “it finally got to the point where I said, ‘Okay, I have to get her to be so active in the scene that her participation feels like a necessary part of each moment.’ ” The result is a scene full of explicit consent.
But he kept removing her pins, one by one, scarcely touching her as he did so.
“What do you intend?” she asked.
“I am not going to consummate this marriage.” He found one last pin, dangling in her curls, and set this against the others that he’d gathered. He arranged them in his hand, a neat row of gray metal.... “But you are.”
The heat of his body had warmed the pins. While she was staring at them in confusion, he closed her fingers around them.
“This is how it works,” he said. “You may trade a pin for a favor. If you want me to unlace your corset, you can give me a pin. If you want me to give you a kiss, it will cost you a pin. But until you ask, I can’t touch you.”
—from The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan
Real People, Real Sex
Ask writers and editors about how they started grappling with communication and consent in the past decade, and they’ll tell you that there was no single standard-setting conversation—and, in fact, that you’re coming at it from the wrong direction.
The conversations in romance changed, they say, because the characters changed first. They have become more complicated, with characterizations beyond their careers (once sharply restricted to roles either nurturing or glamorous) and problems that reflected the evolving struggles readers faced as women entered a wider range of jobs and roles in society.
Take the heroine of Diana Gardin’s Mine to Save (Forever Yours, Dec.), a hacker with autism whose romantic partner builds trust by asking for and confirming consent.
A young prostitute in the Reconstruction-era South anchors Abbie Williams’s Heart of a Dove (Central Ave., 2014), which PW’s review said “successfully melds historical narrative, women’s issues, and breathless romance,” among other elements. The series continues in January 2018 with Grace of a Hawk.
Lindsay McKenna’s heroine in the recently released Wrangler’s Challenge (Kensington) is a former Marine dealing with PTSD and an amputated foot, as well as the fallout from an abusive childhood.
Trauma can be a starting point for intimate trust-building scenes, but it isn’t a requirement. Although Sara Jane Stone has addressed issues of communication and consent through a traumatized character—the heroine of Mixing Temptations (Avon Impulse, 2016) is a Marine who goes AWOL after an assault and has to build trust with her hero—even in the recent lighthearted contemporary The Cinderella Fantasy (self-published), the author felt strongly that the billionaire hero should ask permission for a kiss. “Consent needs to be present on the page and at the forefront of the hero’s mind always,” she says.